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The philosophy of decoration in Islamic architecture

Published: 15/02/2010 03:00:00 PM GMT
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The Prophet (PBUH) disclosed that he was not directed (ma umirtu) to erect (tashyid) monumental mosques.

By Dr. Spahic Omer

  • Part One: Islamic Decoration as an Instrument of Worship

• The legitimacy of decoration

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) not only totally ignored the subject of decoration and ornamentation while he was building and while he was overseeing others who were building during his lifetime, but he also, at a first glance, denounced the matter in several of his hadiths (traditions). In one of them, he is reported to have said that whenever a people’s performance (‘amal) weakens, they then start decorating their mosques. 

In another tradition, the Prophet (PBUH) said that one of the signs of the imminence of the Day of Judgment is when people start boasting against one another with regard to building pursuits,  including planning, construction, decoration and everything else related to built environment. This applies to the mosque institution as well. 

The Prophet (PBUH) also disclosed that he was not directed (ma umirtu) to erect (tashyid) monumental mosques. The narrator of the last hadith, ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, commented: “You shall certainly end up adorning your mosques as both the Jews and Christians did.”  Surely, ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas did not say this of his own accord; rather, he just paraphrased a hadith in which the Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have uttered the same.

Furthermore, the Prophet (PBUH) commanded that every cloth or curtain decorated with figured designs be removed from the places of prayer lest they disturb people’s prayers. He himself set a standard by doing so on a few occasions.  According to yet another hadith, every house ought to be free of those articles that may get in the way of the absorption of those who perform their prayers there.

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( The building and decoration pursuits in Islam were responsive to the material requirements of the people.